Proverbs 22:6 is a well-known proverb about parenting. The New International Version of the Bible translates it this way:
Train a child in the way he should go,
and when he is old he will not turn from it.
Some people take this proverb as a promise. If they raise their children well, their children will turn out alright in the end. On occasion, I hear a worried mom or dad cite this verse about their adult children who have taken a wrong turn spiritually or morally. “He wasn’t raised that way,” they say. “Some day, he’ll come back to God.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the way proverbs work. They don’t make promises. They describe the law of averages. In general, it’s true that well-raised kids become good adults. But it’s not always true. Some well-raised kids become rotten adults. Not always, but sometimes. Even God has problems with his kids. Consider what he says about us in Isaiah 1:2: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” If you want to increase the odds of your kids turning out alright, train them in the way they should go. Don’t presume that they will, however.
Let me throw another monkey wrench into the interpretation of this proverb. During my first year of graduate school, my Hebrew teacher pointed out that “the way he should go” is not a literal translation of Proverbs 22:6. “The most serious difficulty with the traditional rendering of Prov 22:6,” he writes, “is the startling fact that in the Hebrew text there is virtually no basis for the all-important qualifier ‘should’ in the phrase, ‘the way he should go.’” He goes on: “Instead, in each case ‘his way’ (8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17; 19:3; 20:24; 21:29), ‘his ways’ (3:31; 10:9; 14:2, 14: 19:16), ‘her ways’ (3:17; 6:6; 7:25), ‘their way’ (1:31), etc., refer to the way these persons actually go.”[*]
In other words, a more literal translation of Proverbs 22:6 looks like this:
Train up a child according to his way,
and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Some people take this as a commandment about how we should raise our children. We should teach with the grain of their personality and aptitude. Now, there’s a lot of truth in that. You don’t want to shove ballet lessons down a kid who really wants to play basketball. But by the same token, the Book of Proverbs indicates that training a child often requires disciplining his “natural” inclinations.
So, if Proverbs 22:6 is neither a promise that your kid will turn out all right nor a commandment to take his personality into account, what is it? Again, we return to the law of averages. Proverbs 22:6 is a generally true description of what happens if you leave your kids to their own devices. If you let them run amok, they probably will.
But they might not. That’s the great thing about the law of averages. Even bad adults can find the right path if they want to.
[*] Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Train Up a Child,” in Gary D. Pratico and Miles Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 162-163.